Updated July 4, 2019
This article was originally published in 2014. It is still applicable at the time of editing in 2019.
Important: In May of 2019, we received a number of requests for help removing unnatural links penalties from sites that had overused footer links. Several of these were sites that made use of links anchored with phrases like, "Web Design London" in the footer. These penalties can be challenging to remove. If this has happened to you, you may be interested in hiring us to remove a manual action.
There seems to be a lot of confusion as to whether or not linking in the footer of clients' sites back to your site would be considered unnatural by Google. Recently, in a Whiteboard Friday video on Moz.com, Cyrus Shepard, whom I respect greatly, said the following:
A couple of other rules that I see people violate all the time that Google has made painfully clear in the past few months: Don't link externally in the footer. Just don't. I'm not going to go into the reasons. Just don't do that.
Does this mean that ALL footer links are bad? That's what he's implying? I know that Cyrus knows that not all footer links are bad. But, I think that he is saying the safest practice is just to avoid placing links here so that you aren't tempted to link in ways that are unnatural. I thought I would go through my notes for the last couple of years on Webmaster Central Hangouts and see what John Mueller, a Google employee who advises site owners on how to stay within the quality guidelines had to say and then we'll see if we can draw some conclusions:
Video #1 - You do not have to nofollow all footer links:
In this video, from October, 2013, a site owner asks, "If you are doing external links to your authority organizations (in the footer), the best practice for that is open in a new window and follow it...or nofollow it?." Here is John's answer: "However you want to do that....So, open in a new window or not is really up to you. With regards to nofollow or not, essentially if this is a natural link from your website then by all means, just leave it as a normal link." "A followed?" the site owner asks. And John answered, with "Yes".
Video #2 - It's possible that brand anchored footer links *may* be ok in some situations:
In this video from December of 2013, a site owner who was dealing with an unnatural links penalty said that he was considering changing client footer links that point back to him from keyword anchors to brand anchors and John's response was that this was something that "Might be worth doing". I thought it was interesting that he didn't tell them that they had to nofollow the links. A user asked whether nofollow would be better and John said that was an option too. He said, "If it has a nofollow then it doesn't pass PageRank and we wouldn't have to worry about what you are linking to, whereas, if it doesn't have a nofollow and it looks like it is essentially something the web design agency placed there themselves and it's not an editorial link by that individual website then that's something that the manual webspam team could be kind of unhappy about."
Video #3 - Stay away from keyword anchor text in footers:
In this video, from October 2013, a site owner asks, "As a web designer, we've always used attribution links in the footer of clients' sites. We now use branded anchor text instead of keywords. Would you also recommend nofollowing the links? If so, would that same advice be given to WordPress.org?" And here is John's answer: "In general, if you're linking things like your brand name then that's generally fine. That's a good way to kind of link to your website. That's usually not something you'd need to add a nofollow to. On the other hand if your branded anchor text is something like "Cheap Web Hosting Seattle" or something like that then that starts to look a little bit manipulative, so that's something where you might want to use a nofollow.
Video #4 - Make sure that the site owner is aware that the link is there and willingly wants it there:
In this video from February, 2014 a site owner asked John Mueller the following question: "I see some SEO companies and internet marketing companies putting a link pointing to their website in their clients' footer and apparently they're ranking well because of it. Shouldn't that trigger some penalties?" Here is his answer: "Essentially, if you're dropping links in other people's websites and you're using those to forward PageRank to your website then that's kind of an unnatural link...If you're doing this for your clients then at the very least they need to be aware of this and they need to see this as something that they're willingly placing there. So, instead of hiding it in a footer or obscuring it in some way on the sites that's something I'd made as clear as possible and if you're using this as a way to advertise your web design or your SEO company, then using a nofollowed link is just fine because it lets people click on that link, go to your website, see your services and make a qualified decision about your website....It should be something that is very clearly visible there and visible to the client that they understand that this link is there and if you're only placing it there for advertising purposes then putting a nofollow on that link makes it just as valuable in the sense that users are still able to find your website and to see your services there."
Video #5 - Make sure that the link is not there as a mandatory requirement for having the website:
In this video from July of 2013, the following question was asked, "As a web design agency, one of our add-on sales is that we do hosting. As has been standard practice in web design for most of the web, we have a footer link (most are now branded). ". And here is John's response: "That's something where you have to think about how you are doing this on your website. If this is something that is essentially being provided in exchange for maybe a lower cost hosting, then that could be considered an exchanged link and an unnatural link. It's something that the webspam team might take action on. If you've just been adding these links across the board for all of these websites and essentially this is not something that the webmaster naturally places on their website then that could be problematic in the sense that if these are PageRank passing links then that PageRank might be seen as kind of passing unnaturally. If you do that and you have a nofollow attached to that link then that's absolutely no problem. ....One thing that you probably want to make sure is that, again, that this whole thing doesn't look like an unnatural link and that it's actually a link to your business and not something like, 'Cheap Web Hosting' is being the anchor text. So, really making sure that it's something where when someone from the webspam team looks at that then we can say, "OK. It's clear that the webmaster wanted this link there on their own and they're ok with this link being there so that this is visible as a natural link on those pages."
Video #6 - It sounds like John is saying that if you stick to a brand/url anchor, you may be ok:
In this video, also from July of 2013 this question was asked, "Will I get a penalty (or an algo adjustment) for a sitewide dofollow footer link to my web designer? (The anchor is the company name.) What if there were three such links to sister companies? What about links to 10-20 sister sites? Should I nofollow them except for on the homepage?" John said, "Generally speaking that's less of a problem. It's something where it really should be clear to the user that the webmaster is linking to this site on purpose and not that it's something that's required. One of the ways you can guess at that is to see if this is a link that is going to domain directly more or less or does it have some kind of keyword rich anchor text that starts to look really complicated. If you're saying that "This site was designed by www.marketsharewebdesign or something like that then that's something where generally we'd say that's ok." A forum user then asked, "But in the (Google Webmaster Help) Forum they keep on telling people that it's a surefire way to a penalty." I believe by "it", he means, linking to your site in a client's footer. John says, "Sometimes it's a tricky situation, especially when you're doing this like very keyword rich anchor text there then that starts looking very unnatural. If you want to be absolutely sure that this isn't the problem then using something like a nofollow or linking using your domain name instead of keyword rich anchor text then that's usually a little bit safer." John then added something that was very important, in my opinion: "Also, if you're doing this (linking from clients' sites in the footer) and this is essentially the only kind of link your site has then this starts to look a little bit complicated from our point of view in the sense that it might appear that these links are a requirement of having this website made rather than something that the webmaster is doing on their own free will. It kind of looks like a situation where you're doing the web design for this website and in exchange for the pricing that you're giving them you're expecting a link back. Then you're kind of in a situation of that almost being an unnatural link. It's something where I can see that some people if they want to be on the extra safe side then that's something that they might want to look into cleaning up. But if you're doing this in a sense that the webmaster is essentially able to make this decision on their own and this link isn't something that looks like a completely keyword rich unnatural link then that's generally speaking ok." The next question was a statement about how some free design templates contain a link back to the designer and it's a requirement for using the template. John said, "Maybe someone from the webspam team will say, 'It looks like this template is being used on 500 websites and they're not even aware of this link being there....Maybe it's even a hidden link or it's such a small font that nobody can even see it or you can't remove it because suddenly even the template doesn't work anymore.' Then that's something where the webspam team, when they take a look they'll say, 'OK. We need to take action on these things. Maybe we have to just ignore them because otherwise it's kind of an OK website. Or maybe it's even a case where we have to say that we have to take strong action on this website to really make it clear that these are things that they should be cleaning up. Regarding the part of the question where the user asked if it was ok to link to three sister sites in the footer, John said that if it made sense to the user to do so then this is probably ok. He said that if there were a large number of sites and they were all cross linking then it starts looking more unnatural.
Video #7 - If the footer links are legitimate mentions, then don't be afraid to keep them followed:
And finally, from this video in June of 2013, the question asked was, "Is having external links in my footer problematic?" John says, "Generally not. If these are normal links that you'd recommend from your webpages then that's absolutely fine to keep those there. I just wouldn't put hundreds of external links there...If you have individual pages that you think are useful to users and you want to put them in your footer then that's fine.
Video #8 (Added May 2014) - Brand anchored footer links *may* be ok:
In this video at 32:40 from May of 2014, Barry Schwartz asks John Mueller about a large company that creates 5-10 websites a day for clients. They have a footer link on all of their client’s sites that say, “Web design by ”. Should they nofollow the link? John says, “If it’s not something like a keyword rich anchor, where you’re saying “web design” as a footer link, then generally that’s less of a problem for us. If it’s a keyword rich anchor then that’s something where maybe the webspam team would take a look at that and say, ‘This looks like they’re just trying to manipulate the search results. It’s not something that the client can choose to do.’ The other part also from the webspam team’s point of view is whether or not this is something that the website’s owner has a say in or not. Are they consciously linking to this other website? Or is this something that’s essentially forced on them that may be a part of the package in the sense that ‘You’ll get this website cheaper but you have to include this link on the bottom.’ At that point it starts looking a little bit more iffy and something where you’d definitely want to put a nofollow on there.
Barry Schwartz then said that Google would not explicitly know if having the link was a requirement as part of the package. If a company is producing 5-10 websites a day with followed brand anchored links back, would this look bad to the webspam team. John said, “It kind of depends on the overall picture. If they’re doing 5-10 of these websites a day then it probably gets a little bit trickier and they’d want to look into the details a little bit more. It’s probably not something where they’d say, ‘Oh. I see 500 links so this is good or this is bad. They’d probably look into the details there to try to figure out what exactly is happening there and whether or not this is causing any problems on our side…..From a webmaster point of view what’s probably the easiest thing to do there is to just put a nofollow on those links and say I’m using this as a way to advertise my services...I don’t think you’d see a big problem in search if you went with a nofollow in a case like that.
Video #9 (2017) - Can you add links to each of your store locations on each of your sites?
John Mueller was asked the following, "If we add links to the branch pages of our top 20 stores in the footer of our site, would that be ok? On one hand, we might want to highlight the importance and give them a little SEO boost, but we don’t want Google to think that’s spammy and the rankings for those stores to suffer. "
John said that "this is something you can definitely do."
"I generally try to limit the number to kind of random links that you have across your site in the footer to something reasonable. I think 20 is probably about the high limit there, usually I recommend something around like 10, something like around there. So I don’t know what the absolute number would be that you’d want to do there. I’d definitely track to see how these links are actually used. If users don’t actually use these links, then I suspect it’s kind of -- you’re only doing it for search engines. And then probably search engines are already finding those pages anyway. So it’s probably not such a big impact overall. But in general, if you’re doing something like this with 20 links to individual products or stores, or something like that in your footer, then from my point of view, that’s probably the high limit. But in general, that wouldn’t be a big problem. The one thing we sometimes see as being problematic there is that this starts to look a lot like keyword stuffing in that if you have long anchor text for all of these individual links and that looks like you’re just stuffing a bunch of keywords into your footer of the page. And usually what ends up happening then is that we say, ‘oh, these are just keyword stuffed keywords’, we will just ignore them completely. So if you have just locations and you just links the city names, then probably a better approach than to kind of write out the full description for each 20 of these.”
After reviewing all of these videos, here are my conclusions on what Google says about footer links:
- Absolutely do not create followed links with keyword rich anchor text.
- If you are, for example a web design company and you want to link to your site from your client's footers, you are probably safe to do so provided that you link back with your brand name or your url. However, this can be tricky if your brand name could also be construed as a keyword. If your company name is "Toronto Web Design Company" then I would not say that it is safe to link with your brand name. Instead, I would link back using your url just to be safe. With that being said, if you have a big company and you have designed hundreds of websites, I think that having hundreds of links pointing back to your site all saying, "Website designed by torontowebdesigncompany.com" would not look natural.
- John has stated time and time again that it is important that the site owner is aware of the link and wants to have that link there. The problem here though, is how would Google judge this? Obviously using a hidden footer or minuscule text is not a good idea, but is it ok if you are a web design company, and on every site you link back from the footer saying, "This site was designed by HIS Web Marketing?" My gut instinct is that provided the link is clearly visible, and provided that you don't have hundreds of sites that you have designed online then you're probably ok. The problem here is that John sort of contradicts himself when asked about whether it is ok for web design companies to link back to their clients' sites. In some places he implies that it is perfectly ok when linking with your brand name or url. But, in other places he is saying that if you are just adding a "Designed by...." link and the site owner has no say in whether or not the link is there then this is unnatural. So....I have a solution...
My solution to making sure that your footer links are not going to contribute to a penalty
I have a solution, but I'm guessing that not many of you will do it. 🙂 If you are a design agency, SEO company, or a similar type of business that currently obtains links from clients because you have placed something like a "Designed by....." link in the footer, then here is what I would suggest: Contact each of these websites and say something like this:
Hi (Client name), We're writing to ask if you could possibly make changes in how you link to us from your site. You currently have a link in the footer of your site that we placed there that says, "Designed by [our company name]". As you may or may not know, Google is getting really strict on cracking down on what they call "unnatural links". We feel that the link from your site is totally natural. However, because we have hundreds of sites that link to us with the same wording, we would like to ask if some changes could be made, just to be on the safe side. Don't worry...your site is not at any risk at all. Can you think of a different way to mention us as your design company? If you want, it can still stay in the footer, but we can just change up the wording, or you can place a short statement somewhere else on your website crediting us with its design. We can help you with the implementation if necessary. We really appreciate you doing this for us! If you have any questions at all, don't hesitate to ask.
I know what you're thinking. Your clients are either not going to respond or possibly will say, "I'll just remove the link". And you're right...some of them probably will remove the link or nofollow it. And this is exactly what would happen if the links were obtained in a natural fashion. It's not a normal pattern to have every single client of yours linking back with the exact same text. If you can get even just some of the links changed, then this will help your backlink profile look like a natural one. If you don't hear back from some site owners and you have the ability to change the link yourself, then it may be safest to change those to nofollow. I know that some of you are also thinking that instead of contacting your clients you can just change up the wording yourself on each site to make it look natural. I can tell you that this is very difficult to do. I have reviewed hundreds of backlink profiles and it is usually quite obvious when people have tried to make something "look natural". It is really hard to imitate natural linking and not create patterns.
Added June 2014: Mark Runyon added a really helpful tip (taken from Eric Ward) in the comment section of this post. The suggestion was to have footer links point to a sales page on your site and then have a branded link back to your home page from there. And as an addition, rather than having just a footer link from your clients' sites, if you can have your client write a brief testimonial for you that links to your site that would be even better.
If you don't want to try my solution, here's what I'd advise:
Ultimately Google is not going to give us a black and white checklist of what is and isn't acceptable. I think that if you are trying to clean up after a penalty and you know that you have been involved in manipulative linking in the past, then I would be on the safe side and nofollow links in my clients' footers that could possibly be construed as passing pagerank. But, for the average business owner who has been generally following the rules, if you've got some brand or url anchored links from your client's footers then I would not be concerned.
Please know that I don't speak for Google. 🙂 The thoughts in this article are just that...my thoughts. I know lots of people think differently about this subject. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.